Writer: David Ireland
Director: Vicky Featherstone
After two runs at the Royal Court Theatre and Abbey Theatre in Dublin as co-producers, plus transfers to The Public Theatre, New York and The MAC Belfast as well as a screening on BBC4 and the BBC iPlayer, David Ireland’s Cyprus Avenue is something of a phenomenon. What initially appears to be an absurdist take on Northern Irish identity and Unionism quickly descends into something much darker, and for anyone who didn’t catch it live, the play is now available to stream on the Royal Court website.
Living in Belfast and fiercely British, Grandfather Eric Miller becomes increasingly disturbed by the resemblance of his 5-week old granddaughter to Gerry Adams and goes to some lengths to prove to his mystified daughter and wife that tiny Mary May is the Sinn Fein politician incarnate. As Eric’s frustrations grow, he starts to explore his identity, questioning how Irish he really might be and the consequences of peace for the future of Ulster.
Ireland’s play is told in retrospect as Eric engages in therapeutic conversations with his doctor Bridget which frame the story and alert the audience early on that the outrageously comic tone is not all it seems. This production staged in a rare traverse at the Royal Court has been brought to the screen with considerable thought, using the techniques of film-making to chart the unfolding psychological drama as well as cutting styles to mark the different chapters as the story builds to its truly shocking conclusion.
One of the key differences here has been the insertion of externally filmed sequences that take Eric and Bridget to the streets of Belfast, both to the titular Cyprus Avenue as well as the park where Eric’s final breakdown is catalysed. Bridget is seen examining the symbols and protest art in the communities most affected by the Troubles, and while these sequences add little to what is a tightly plotted piece of drama, the additional context is interesting, while creating variation in the screening style, as Bridget and Eric’s conversation is heard as voiceover as well as in filmed conversation.
But the key success of this online version is how well the rhythm of the play and the slow deterioration of Eric’s mind are reflected in the camerawork. The use of close-ups as Eric’s fanciful beliefs about the baby become ingrained and poisonous are fascinating, examining every inch of actor Stephen Rea’s intense and impressive performance. Equally the growing tension and burden on Eric to face what he has done is reflected in quick cuts between Eric and Bridget that skilfully respond to the movements and emotional flow within the play.
Rea’s performance is extraordinary and hugely memorable, enhanced here by the intimacy of the shots that give the viewer a closer-than-front-row perspective. Eric is a complex character, comic in many ways but also deadly earnest, misguided and impassioned by his overt loyalty to his notion of Britishness and fearful of the encroaching inertia of the younger generation who seek to maintain peace even if means the erosion of identity. And it is that loss of control that Rea – already a renowned film actor – conveys so well to camera, which escalates into paranoia and a conclusion that is astoundingly grave.
Ronkẹ Adékoluẹjo who was recently so brilliant in the National Theatre’s Three Sisters uses her role as Eric’s antagonist to calmly elicit details of his final actions, building the pressure and sense of challenge which is particularly strong onscreen. Chris Corrigan as the Unionist terrorist Slim, Amy Molloy as perplexed daughter Julie and Andrea Irvine as wife Bernie all add texture as Eric’s world view narrows to the point of disaster.
Cyprus Avenue is a very funny, often random, play a lot of the time but there are character traits that some will find potentially offensive including use of racist and derogatory language as well as violence and the expression of political and religious views. But Ireland has written a fantastic, tightly coiled play that explores the legacy of Britain and Ireland’s relationship in the past 100 years and how complicated peace can be even for those who fought so long and so hard for it. This filmed version is available only for a short while but in a wonderful deluge of theatre streaming make sure you spend 95-minutes on this one.
Streaming until 26 April 2020